Absinthe is one of the most intimidating spirits out there—and not just for casual drinkers. Bartenders also admit that the green fairy is much more difficult to work with than the average spirit like vodka or whiskey. It’s not just because of its dark, troubled past; the jade-tinged liquor clocks in at a high ABV—typically between 130 and 140 proof—and requires, shall we say, a delicate hand.
Will Elliott is one of the few bartenders to have mastered the tricky task of not only perfecting absinthe-based classics, but also inventing new ways to tame its intensity. Elliott is the bar director at Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, NY, which specializes in oysters and absinthe—a combination that seems odd, but actually makes sense once you experience it yourself. He’s been working with absinthe and creating absinthe cocktails—including the Walcott Express (Germain Robin absinthe, Sapin 55, fresh lime, lime cordial, mint) and Inverness (La Muse Verte absinthe, Drambuie, Lillet Blanc, lemon, blueberry, cassis, cream)—since the bar opened in 2010.
“We change the menu four times a year—I’m always a little surprised when peers of mine speak of how unusual and difficult and awesome our cocktail list is,” he says. “I’m so used to it at this point, but many bartenders don’t have any idea of how they’re going to begin to create an absinthe cocktail.”
And if professional bartenders are having trouble working with the stuff, it’s to be expected that home bartenders would also run into a few roadblocks. Elliott says the spirit’s high proof is to blame, as well as its “extremely extracted flavor,” which, if you’ve ever tried absinthe, you’re probably acutely aware of.
“I always shorthand explain it to people by comparing it to the black jelly bean in the bunch,” he says. “People always sort of look at that jelly bean like, ‘Shit, maybe I’ll give it another try this time,’ and they always seem to regret it. But [a Jelly bean is] not a good way to introduce yourself to a flavor.”
Here, Elliott lets us in on the five dos and don’ts of drinking the green fairy that will help introduce you to the anise-forward flavor in a very grown-up way that’s nothing at all like that dreaded black jelly bean.
DON’T Drink Absinthe Neat
“The most frequent thing that people ask for that I have to take issue with is asking for neat absinthe—just absinthe in the glass,” says Elliott. “That’s just not possible, really, if you think about it.”
He adds that drinking absinthe without any kind of mixer is not only expensive for the consumer and the bar (Maison Premiere’s traditional Absinthe Drip, for example, costs $14 and only includes about one ounce of the spirit, a straight pour would be much more costly), but, more importantly, it’s also not the way the spirit is meant to be drunk. Absinthe is intended to be heavily diluted with water. Elliott notes that even on an old bottle of absinthe he has that dates back to the 1800s, it recommends a dilution of one part absinthe to four or five parts water.
DO Drink It as a Frappé
If you do want to taste absinthe the way it’s meant to be drunk, Elliott points to the traditional Absinthe Drip or, his favorite way to drink absinthe, in a Frappé—a drink that originated after absinthe was first imported to the U.S. in the 1800s. It blends absinthe, water and sugar over packed crushed ice with a touch of mint, not unlike the South’s beloved Mint Julep. “I love absinthe as a Frappé,” says Elliott. “It slowly develops as the ice melts and more water is introduced into it—it sort of lengthens the process of drinking it.”
For anyone who’s still somewhat wary of the intense anise/fennel/licorice flavor absinthe possesses, Elliott notes a practice that used to come up frequently in old cocktail books: “In Italy, it was popular to make Absinthe Frappés with just a little bit of maraschino,” he says. “Maraschino isn’t all that sweet, it’s a little medicinal, a little nutty because it’s made from the pits of cherries, but I like that a lot.”
He adds that in Switzerland, grenadine was also a popular sweetener to in Frappés. “You’re adding just a little something to round it out,” he says. “It’s sort of like adding a little sugar or cream to your coffee.”
DO Drink It in a Cocktail
One of the best ways to ease yourself into drinking absinthe is to try it in cocktail form, particularly when you’re able to pair the absinthe with another ingredient that you’re already accustomed and partial to, including rye whiskey (like in the classic New Orleans Sazerac), gin (like in the Corpse Reviver No. 2), or low-ABV dry vermouth (like in the three-ingredient Chrysanthemum). These drinks use absinthe as a flavor enhancer rather than as the base spirit, so you won’t get an overwhelming licorice flavor. “Cocktailing with absinthe is an awesome mechanism of getting it into people’s comfort zones—you can literally just add dashes to the point where it’s not even perceptible,” says Elliott. “It’s a way to slowly sort of introduce it into a [familiar] context.”
DON’T Light It On Fire
There’s no good reason or completely safe way to light drinks on fire. Because flames in bars are usually reserved for super high-proof liquor—most often 151-proof rum—absinthe sometimes falls victim to a lighter or match. But Elliott says this practice is a bad idea not only because of the safety issue (go ahead, Google “flaming drink gone wrong”), but also because of its negative effect on the absinthe’s flavor. “It truly ruins the distillate and burns all these flavor compounds,” says Elliott, noting that absinthe is essentially a combination of delicate flavors from essential herb and botanical oils, thanks to the way it’s infused and distilled. “There’s no good reason to [light absinthe on fire].”
DO Drink It Like Wine
“I always like to compare absinthe to wine,” says Elliott. “I think it’s a very apropos comparison because, again, you go back to that serving suggestion—between 4 and 5 parts water to one part absinthe—and if you do some quick simple math, you come down to around 12, 13, 14, 15 percent [after it’s diluted], and that is exactly the range of wine.”
He says that when absinthe is prepared as a Drip in particular, you should be taking in as much of the drink in one sip as you would when tasting wine. Additionally, you can also aerate the absinthe to open up some of those botanical flavors by swirling it in the glass and getting a sense of the aroma.
Though this might seem like an odd recommendation—particularly to anyone who only knows absinthe in passing—there’s some pretty good logic behind it: “Absinthe is produced in some amazing wine regions traditionally—the Alps of France and Switzerland,” says Elliott, who notes that the two regions are known for their distinctive styles of absinthe (vert or “green” in France and blanche or “white” in Switzerland). “There’s tremendous symbiosis.”